Obama’s impossible vision

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There is no place outside the United States (where, in view of the likelihood of Senate approval of health reform, the situation is a bit different) where people are not disappointed in President Barack Obama. This is not an entirely justified disappointment: anyone with eyes in their head, particularly here in the Middle East, should have known at some point that his commitments and style could not produce the results he promised. True, the man has vision, charisma and natural leadership qualities, but the trees he has climbed are too high.

If Abu Mazen (Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas), for example, truly believed that Obama would succeed in completely ceasing settlement construction and then bring about the dismantling of the settlements and an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines, he provided Israelis and Arabs yet further proof that he is not a statesman. And the Israelis quaking with fear, especially after Obama’s Cairo speech, lest he abandon Israel on the altar of reconciliation with the Muslim world, did not understand the strategic and psychological constraints that would prevent him, even if he wanted to (and he doesn’t), from sacrificing Israel.

In most of the foreign policy arenas where Obama is unsuccessful in implementing his plans (except Iran) the main reason is that it’s impossible to do so, unless he changes the rules of the game completely, particularly regarding the deployment of military forces several times larger than those currently in the region. Yet this contradicts both his ideology and his mandate. Besides, Congress would never approve, nor would the other powers, led by China and Russia.

In the Middle East, outside of Iran, there is no need for the American army. Diplomatic pressure will do, though even here Obama is beginning to realize that his vision enjoys no real support–aside from the rhetoric of a few so-called leaders–among the Israeli and Palestinian publics he is trying to serve. The vision, ostensibly so noble, has collided with reality.

Obama’s vision, first formulated by the Israeli left years ago, is two states for two peoples. Had the president of the United States done his homework and not relied on an ideology without foundations or bowed to the pressures of his closest aides (themselves influenced by far-left Israelis trying to weaken their government through their access to the White House and other centers of power), he would have discovered that his vision is a non-starter. Those in the Arab world with the real influence and power–not just Hamas–oppose it forthrightly. Even the Israelis who pay lip service to the two-state vision, like PM Binyamin Netanyahu in his Bar Ilan speech, in fact reject it. Indeed, even the moderate Zionist left that used to believe in this solution now has its reservations–not because it opposes giving up territory, but because it has lost faith in the sincerity of the Palestinian offer to make peace with a Jewish state on the basis of two states for two peoples.

Accordingly, some of the proposals voiced in the media–and, lo and behold, taken seriously by the White House and State Department–to "deal head-to-head" with this or that leader (read: Netanyahu) are not serious, even childish. Like Obama himself, Netanyahu, even if pressed to the wall, cannot bend beyond his own capacity for political survival. Hence he withstood the pressure of an impossible American diktat to freeze all settlement construction, including in Jerusalem.

With Abu Mazen the situation is far worse. First, Obama’s rhetoric thwarted him: it raised his expectations to the sky and led him to make commitments, such as not meeting with Netanyahu until a freeze is in place, that he cannot keep if he wants to see any movement at all. In any case, his own status among his public is at best symbolic: even without binding himself with rhetoric, he can’t really make significant commitments in the name of Palestinians. When he has committed, for example regarding an end to terrorism, his opponents have proven with Qassam rockets and suicide bombers that the president of Palestine has no authority.

So what should Obama do? If he applies pressure, it will only generate more terrorism by Hamas and other Palestinian opposition groups, and this is the opposite of what he wants to achieve. Nor is toppling Netanyahu an option. That won’t bring the Israeli left to power, but even if it did, there is today no leader there who can unite the public around a withdrawal to the 1967 lines and the dismantling of settlements–the American "vision". In a way, Netanyahu is the only leader who can move, within limits, in coordination with the Americans and hope to survive. The "only the Likud can" slogan is spot on when it comes to making territorial concessions, as Menachem Begin did in Sinai and Ariel Sharon in Gaza. A left-wing government could not have done it; the right would have flooded the streets with tens of thousands of demonstrators to prevent the dismantling of settlements.

So is there a way out? Not for the moment. In the longer run, if there emerges a Palestinian leadership capable of committing all factions to its decisions and if the decision is to go for a two-state solution, I believe the Israeli public will offer its support, subject to the following minimal conditions. First, the Palestinians forego the right of return. Second, the settlements remain in place. And third, Palestinians do not receive land inside Israel as "swaps" for the "settlement blocs".

After the trauma of the Qatif bloc in which "only" some 10,000 settlers were removed, I doubt any Israeli government could remove all or even most of the settlers in Judea and Samaria in accordance with the Palestinians’ (and Americans’) minimal demand. Both the Palestinians and the Obama administration must recognize that the talk of "time is in the Arabs’ favor" is in fact wrong. When Yasser Arafat signed the Oslo accords there were around 150,000 Jewish settlers. Today, despite the (incomplete) settlement construction freeze, nearly 300,000 Jews live in the territories. They are determined soon to reach half a million–and they will.

Thus, it is Palestinian time that is running out.

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